Dancing empowers girls to pursue mathematics: an interview with Kirin Sinha

Dear readers,

I recently had the great pleasure of speaking with Kirin Sinha, who just completed her Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT. I found out about Kirin through an MIT News article and was intrigued by her initiative to help middle-school girls gain confidence in mathematics that uses not only traditional tutoring, but also dancing.

Kirin may be my youngest interviewee so far, but her passion for making a difference in the way mathematics is taught and perceived in society comes through very clearly. In addition to being a mathematician and a dancer, she is also an accomplished musician and music composer, and we had a great discussion of the close relationships between artistic and mathematical pursuits. Here is our interview.

Kirin hopes to bring her program, SHINE, to more girls around the world, and I hope you will join me in supporting her initiative by making a donation to her non-profit.

Transcript of my interview with Melodie Mouffe

Dear readers,

I’d like to wish all of you a happy New Year, and I hope it’s off to a great start! Today I’m putting up the transcript of another interview I did last year, the one with Melodie Mouffe. Once again, I would like to thank my assistant for preparing the initial transcript. Stay tuned for more transcripts, more interviews, and more exciting posts!

Transcript: Interview with Melodie Mouffe

MP: Hi Melodie! Well, thanks very much for agreeing to speak to me today. I’m really glad to get this opportunity to talk to you. And the first question I was hoping to ask you to start our interview is about your transition from academia into industry. And specifically what I would like to know is what your main motivation for it was; was it because of better working conditions or perhaps the chance to make a bigger impact or was there something else?

MM: Well actually, the main answer is two-fold. One of first reasons I wanted to go to industry was really to work with people, to interact more with people because as a mathematician researcher you generally work a lot kind of alone let’s say. One of the reasons I really enjoyed going into industry was to work with more of a team let’s say – that was the first reason. And the second one was simply the real application and then the impact as you say in your question. Actually to see that what you are doing is really applied and used by a person – that’s something I really like.

MP: Fantastic! So I guess the impact was a big part of it but also just the ability to interact, to work with a team. That’s great! So then let’s talk more about your work. You’re currently working at the energy company, multinational GDF Suez. So can you tell me what it is that you do on a day-to-day basis, just generally and also how challenging do you find the work at GDF Suez compared to your academic work?

MM: Well actually my everyday work involves a lot of mathematics because I’m currently part of a team that handles the mathematical models of the group, let’s say some of them, and I think one of the main challenges here is really the interaction with the users and so I think we have non-mathematicians who have needs to have models let’s say represent what they are really doing in their life in the energy world. And so I think one of the biggest challenges is to make our mathematical models and all the math things that are inside their tools look simple and represent for you what they want.

MP: That’s right. I see, so how do you go about doing that? How do you take something that is very complicated, a mathematical model, and how do you make it accessible to somebody who is not a mathematician, somebody who doesn’t necessarily know what’s inside it and wants to get the results from it? What are some approaches to that?

MM: Well I think the first thing is to listen to them and try to pick up the vocabulary they use and try to, as mathematicians in an industry we really have to understand the needs of the final users and we have to adapt ourselves to make it look simple, so really hear what they have to say and try to translate our equations into everyday words.

MP: I see. Yeah, so how do you, for instance, deal with someone who says OK, how do I know that this model is actually doing what I need it to do and it’s somebody who is not very familiar with mathematics so they might not understand if you go into the technical details? What would you say to somebody like that who is really skeptical, let’s say, or is that something that happens at all that people are just not able to trust the models?

MM: Yeah, it may happen but we’re doing a lot of testing fortunately—we have to! But also the users, let’s say the output of the models are really user-friendly. We hope they are and we’re working on that. The final user can really test whether the model really acts like it should. I mean if the final output of the model is what it’s supposed to be at least in some simple cases.

MP: Sure. OK, I understand. So how do you feel about the impact that your work is attaining? Do you feel that it’s a significant impact that you’re able to make with what you’re doing?

MM: Yeah, well actually the model I am currently working on I think helps real impact for some people using it. It has been recently introduced in some parts of the company and well we have a nice return from the users saying it’s nice. And we’re trying to introduce it in another part of the company currently and I look forward to hear the critiques – positive and constructive critiques from them, because we know it can have a real impact on the everyday life of the users.

MP: So I guess the feedback that you’re getting is probably really rewarding, just being able to know that people are actually using the models that you’re building. I think that well, at least for me this is always something that has been a source of anxiety so to speak, where I don’t actually know if anything that I produce or anything that I publish is actually going to be used by other people. Like it’s nice to get a paper, but then you don’t actually know for sure if anybody is going to really take it to the next level.

MM: I totally agree with your concerns and I think that is one of the main advantages of being in industry. Industry cannot waste money into projects that they will not pursue until the end so you’re sure what you’re working on will be used. That’s really rewarding.

MP: Absolutely, but do you also feel that there is, I mean one of the commonly stated concerns that academics have about working in industry is that you don’t get a lot of freedom, you don’t get a lot of choice in terms of the kind of problems that you’re working on, the kind of models that you’re building, the kind of questions you’re addressing? Is that accurate?

MM: Yeah, it’s totally accurate. Yeah, I think everybody has to find a tradeoff between freedom and being sure that what you were doing will be used because, of course when you have a lot of freedom, it’s fun, it’s even extraordinary. I love that, but somehow sometimes it’s also important to skip part of the freedom to go lead a project until the end, let’s say, and ensure that. But that’s true—that difference between academia and industry—that’s totally true.

MP: And do you mostly work on independent projects or are most of your projects collaborative projects where you get to work with other people?

MM: I mainly work in collaborative projects but well, in general it’s small and collaborative for now. Maybe in the future I will have the opportunity to work on more independent projects but that’s not currently the case.

MP: Not for the moment, huh?

MM: No.

MP: And how long have you been working at your current position?

MM: It’s just six months.

MP: Oh, it’s just six months so it’s very recent for you?

MM: Yeah.

MP: And how do you like the corporate culture so far? How do you feel about the culture of the company?

MM: Well for the moment I kind of enjoy that. Well I’m a part of a very very nice team and so that helps a lot.

MP: Absolutely, having a good team is probably the most important determinant of enjoyment.

MM: Yes and for the rest I really enjoy, I mean I have not really felt yet the system of being in a big company, you know this corporate culture that much.

MP: I see, for instance, the kind of things I was referring to, based on my own experiences in the corporate world. For instance, you know I found that there were a lot more meetings that I was wasting my time on and maybe out of an eight hour work day I would spend two to three hours in meetings and only five to six hours actually doing work.

MM: Yes, I can see that around me but I have the chance to be in a team where we really really do a lot of technical work so I see that for sure there are more meetings than in academia where there’s nearly no meetings actually. But it’s still reasonable I mean. And those meetings have good sides too. Yes, you have less time to work on technical topics but still when you’re in teamwork, it’s kind of important I think.

MP: Great. OK, well let’s go back in time a little bit and talk a little bit about the experiences you had with teaching, so in particular I am really curious what some of your favorite subjects to teach were and also why?

MM: Well I have not taught a lot but I really enjoy teaching. So to answer your question about topic – it was nonlinear optimization which was actually my field of research and yes, I really loved to teach that specific topic in particular because for me it’s the opportunity to really give the love of what you’re doing as a mathematician to young people and maybe hopefully to influence them and to give them the will or the wish to continue in mathematics themselves someday.

MP: I was just wondering what level of teaching they were; were these undergraduate students? Were they doing their Bachelor’s degree or Master’s degree? It’s a bit difficult to compare the systems but sorry for that.

MM: No, of course I am so used to the system here. It’s kind of like Master’s; it could be compared to first year of Master’s, I think.

MP: OK so roughly speaking, Master’s students.

MM: Yes, it was engineering students, but I think it was after the Baccalaureate.

MP: Have you ever had to teach any younger people like either at school or maybe undergraduate?

MM: During the Bachelor; yes. I had the opportunity to give a few lessons to students in their bachelor and in private to give lessons to really younger, like secondary school or high school actually, but it was more private lessons. And that’s a very different way of teaching of course. But still it’s very interesting.

MP: So you were like a private tutor for those students then?

MM: Yes.

MP: OK I see. That’s fantastic. I know you have some background in acting so I was curious – has that been helpful at all for teaching or perhaps has teaching been helpful for acting? What was the interaction between those two things for you?

MM: Actually, acting is very useful for teaching because it’s just acting is nice and it’s really helpful to feel comfortable talking in front of people let’s say. And maybe to find words a bit easily, to not feel shy the first time you’re in front of a class or something. That can help a lot I think.

MP: Sure, sure. So basically you get to use those skills. Would you say there is a need to improvise sometimes?

MM: Not sure.

MP: You’re not exactly sure, huh?

MM: We hope it will never happen but at least you cannot anticipate all the questions from the students for example. Yes of course you have to improvise sometimes and yes it can probably be also helpful even if I have not done improvisation.

MP: Well, I remember for me I had this experience when I had to teach my own class, in 2007 I think it was, and you know, it was interesting because it was not a topic that I knew all that well so I really wished sometimes that I had more experience with acting, especially improvisation, because I had to, a lot of the times, make things up as I went. So that’s interesting. Maybe you can tell me a little more about acting that you have done how much you have had an opportunity to perform in the past.

MM: Well actually I have always been an amateur, but my father took me to the first diction classes when I was eight so I, let’s say, entered the field of public speaking really young and I continued with declamation like poetry, reading and so on, and so I finally ended in some theatre classes and so I continued that for I don’t know like seven years or something, and I stopped just because I moved and I went to Toulouse so that’s the reason why I stopped. But I hope to continue someday.

MP: That’s when you started your doctoral work, is that right?

MM: Exactly, exactly. I could not find the time at that moment to continue.

MP: I see and I know that you also have an interest in the music; I guess you have done some music in the past. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

MM: My family really likes music a lot so you cannot escape music in my family, like my brother [is a classical guitarist], as you know, and my name is Melodie. So I did some music theory lessons for five years and then I have learned to play drums and so I was not in a band but I enjoy playing just for myself.

MP: So you played drums as a soloist. Is that right?

MM: Yeah.

MP: And did you find any interesting parallels between mathematics and music? I know a lot of people are really curious about those connections and especially in music theory, which is very mathematical in some sense. Have you found that was a helpful connection there?

MM: Yeah I guess my interest in music might be related to my interest in mathematics. Even if I don’t really think a lot about it, to be honest. I appreciate like when I recognize some really like mathematical patterns in some music. I enjoy that.

MP: Absolutely I guess that’s the thing that a lot of people don’t necessarily appreciate about mathematics but do appreciate about music, right? There is a lot of patterns and figuring out what the patterns are in a way. So yeah, wells that’s fantastic. So then I wanted to also ask you little bit of a different question, which is that, you know, what have your experiences been of being a female mathematician? Of course we have a very heavily male dominated profession, unfortunately still today so have you ever felt that you were either treated in a different way by your colleagues or maybe faced any challenges that were specifically because, you know, you’re a woman?

MM: Actually I’ve never felt any bad sides of being a woman in the mathematicians’ world. Of course you see it’s a man’s world, OK. The problems are tackled as men would do and yes the human relations are really like more in a man’s world, really. It’s kind of colder maybe, I don’t know. But personally I have never experienced anything bad. It has always been more of an opportunity to be a woman in that man’s world because it is actually appreciated because we sometimes as women have different points of views let’s say and that is in general appreciated. Well that’s how I experienced it.

MP: So you would say it was actually more of an opportunity than a challenge for you?

MM: Yes, totally true, and both in academia and in industry actually.

MP: I see. Has anything been different between I guess the way that other people have seen you in academia versus in industry, being a woman? Is that something that’s sort of changed with your transition or has that mostly stayed the same?
MM: Not really. I have not seen any changes especially as I told you in general people appreciate to have women in the mathematical field. The women around me are also really appreciated as women in addition to being appreciated as mathematicians. I mean the atmosphere is different when it’s more mixed, let’s say. And it’s the same in academia as industry.

MP: Would you say that there’s like in terms of proportions, would you say there’s more female mathematicians in the academic environment that you have experienced or is it more, proportionally speaking female mathematicians in the industrial side that you’re in right now?

MM: In my experience it was more in academia but I don’t know really the reason of that actually. There were more women where I used to be in academia than where I am in industry but since I really don’t know if it’s a rule or a fact or if it’s just a coincidence.

MP: Sure, absolutely. And would you say there is anything that you would maybe want to see change in either of the two systems in order to make things more welcoming for female mathematicians that would perhaps be more encouraging for them to actually choose mathematics as a profession?

MM: Yeah maybe.

MP: If so, what can be changed?

MM: Actually, I think in the professional world it’s all right, it’s kind of pretty welcoming for women in mathematics. Things should change earlier like in school or something because when you’re in high school or even in the university sometimes, yeah as a woman in mathematics you hear some things like it’s for men, shouldn’t you do something else. But I think it’s really more earlier, not in the professional careers. There as a woman in general, I think it has already changed, you know?

MP: I see. So basically you would say we would need to start encouraging young women in perhaps school?

MM: Absolutely! If they like mathematics then to go on with that passion for mathematics. It’s worth it.

MP: And so speaking of this passion for mathematics that you just mentioned, how did it happen for you? How did you come realize that you really like mathematics, that you really enjoy doing it and that you really want to make a career out of it? What would your sources of inspiration be?

MM: Actually when I was really a kid my father taught me mathematics and he really loved mathematics and so I think he gave me his own passion for that and so it has always been something that I liked – mathematics. But I thought I could never do my job of it and so I was thinking of what I could do after and the day I was sixteen I learned that I could really learn mathematics in the university and maybe make a job of it and then it was obvious because it was like a dream to have the possibility of doing this for a living.

MP: Absolutely I think that’s a great privilege that we have actually to be doing something that we really enjoy and that we really like and at the same time be paid for it.

MM: Yeah yeah yeah, that’s kind of extraordinary, in my opinion. We are really lucky. Absolutely I guess I don’t appreciate that enough but that is certainly very true.

MP: And then tell me a little bit about any role models you might have had in terms of your passion for mathematics. Have there been any people other than your father who has also kind of inspired you or became one of the people you wanted to sort of, emulate?

MM: Yes, sure. Well I had a teacher during last grade of high school. He was very passionate himself in mathematics and the way he was telling us anything about mathematics like it was some kind of a game but also something really fun for himself and that encouraged me very much. And also he encouraged me to study mathematics afterwards if I wanted to and I’m really thankful for him. And after in the university I met one of the two professors that were my advisors for the thesis, Philippe Toint – he was really fun and just completely passionate about what he was saying. And I think that’s really the reason after I have loved to teach. It’s this passion I received from them; it’s so nice, so encouraging, you know. They never give up.

MP: Absolutely yeah, I think it’s really really important to have inspiring teachers and we really need more inspiring teachers to make sure we have people continuing to go into mathematics. And one of the things that I wanted to also ask you, the people I have interviewed so far, one was based in Canada and one was based in Japan and you’re in Belgium. So we kind of get a lot of geographic variety, which is great. So how do people in Europe usually react when they find out you’re a mathematician? Are there any stereotypes that people associate with mathematicians and you know how do people’s reactions usually go?

MM: Well the first reaction I generally have is oh, that’s great you’re a mathematician but I am sorry I don’t really like that. Or yes that’s great but that’s really too complicated for me so don’t really try to explain that but that’s OK. I mean they generally like the fact that I am a mathematician but it’s like a strange object like a strange thing they don’t really know and they kind of like or don’t like but they just don’t know what really can be done as a mathematician’s job in everyday life. And that’s one of the reasons you are doing your blog and I think it’s really important.

MP: Well thanks, I hope that you know we’ll start slowly not just focusing on doing really good math but also gradually start doing a better job of communicating the importance and the joy of what it is that we do to people who are not mathematicians or to people who might not even like math that much. So what would you think are some good ways of communicating to the general public or to the people who are not mathematicians the fact that we are doing something cool and interesting and useful?

MM: Well I think we first have to forget about the complexity of mathematics that we generally like and then as an applied mathematician, I found that talking about what it’s used for and the end use of mathematics is generally useful for explaining to people the importance of mathematics and for the joy I generally say it’s a game and you should never forget it’s a game to do mathematics. If you find it it’s a game, then you will enjoy it. I think we generally forget that part.

MP: That’s right. I really like that comparison. I think especially very early on there is this game-like aspect to doing mathematics that is really addictive in a way.

MM: Yeah yeah, exactly. I totally agree.

MP: And kind of like maybe like a Russian doll a little bit—you start out with something on the surface and then you open it up and there is something else inside. You know it keeps going and going. You can go really in depth with that. Yeah, that’s a really great analogy. I’m really glad that you brought that up. And speaking of the end uses of mathematics you mentioned so I know that you work on models that are used in two very different fields, one of which is aeronautics and another one is hydrology. So first if you don’t mind very quickly just give us a quick definition of what it is; what aeronautics is and what hydrology is because I realize I am not even sure what hydrology is exactly.

MM: OK so well for aeronautics I just worked on optimization for models of planes, the purpose was just to define a design of a plane in order to let’s say consume less fuel in the plane to make it more efficient to fly. Yeah, to make it more energy-efficient. That was for the aeronautics part and for the hydrology the goal was to try to predict the behavior of some main rivers. I worked on a model that wanted to evaluate the height of the Amazon River everywhere at every time. That was the main goal of that. Well of course it’s difficult as you know but that was really the goal.

MP: I see OK. And what was the application? For energy efficient planes, that seems very clear. For measuring the height of the Amazon was the idea just to sort of understand how it evolved over time?

MM: No actually it was first to prevent floods, like when the water comes out of the river bed and so on and also to, you know, you have sometimes electric plants based on hydrology, you know, and so they need to know the river behavior very well to adapt the way the plants work actually.

MP: Sure. Those were the two aspects. I see. Fantastic. So what would you say would be sort of the cause and what was the consequence? Was it that you were interested in these applications and then you wanted to develop the tools or were you more interested in the tools or maybe you already had some idea of the tools and those were the applications for them?

MM: For the aeronautics actually I worked on optimization during my PhD and the aeronautic industry was actually interested in the kind of algorithms my team has developed and even if they were in the basic steps of doing optimization it was really first the mathematics and then the application in that case. And for the hydrology I had the opportunity to meet the people working in that field and they generally don’t work with mathematicians really. We just thought it could be a good opportunity to work together and actually my boss on that project was an engineer in hydrology and she thought that maybe having a mathematician to help in that field would be interesting, well would give something different. And then it was true because we thought about developing optimization part for the model and so on, we had ideas coming from that collaboration that were really interesting.

MP: OK so that’s excellent. That sounds fantastic! So I guess this is one of those situations where you can have either the mathematics first and then the application or the application first and then the mathematics and you have done both so that’s really great. I think if there is too much of, I am not necessarily advocating one or the other but I do know that a lot of the times what happens is you know somebody develops a really nice theoretical tool or approach or algorithm or whatever and then spends a lot of time just trying to find something that it would be helpful for or useful for. And I think that can be very frustrating for some people.

MM: I think that’s true. That’s the main problem of academia.

MP: Right I guess it is definitely a significant problem. Well great so then since we’re coming back to this question that we started from, the choice between academia and industry, I was hoping to get your thoughts about how one should be making that choice if that’s the choice that needs to be made and maybe more specifically let’s imagine that we have a young mathematician who maybe, you know, just finished their Master’s or their PhD and is deciding whether to go into academic research or industrial work so what would you suggest? What kind of advice would you give to somebody like that?

MM: Well I think it’s a difficult choice because the goal and as we said the freedom is kind of very different so I think it first depends on the person and what the person really wants to do for a living but if there is really a consideration of both sides well I would stress to at least try both because for example if you have a PhD you have an idea of what academic research could be and it might be interesting to at least do a part of a year in industry to test to learn how things go in practice and also to have more of an idea of the final customers, what they want , what they need, and then to direct what you do in research if you end up in research more with that idea of that final customer. So it would be maybe easier to find a final customer even if you’re in the academic world. But really try both if you can and if you have the opportunity.

MP: Yeah, I think that’s really great advice and I think it’s really hard to know because everybody likes different things and I think a lot of academically-minded people feel that, you know, industry is very different and that it might not necessarily be just based on their impressions or experiences of other people, whereas trying it out for themselves might actually give them a better idea of what it’s really like. Fantastic. Well I am really glad that we got a chance to talk about all this. I think that there were really interesting topics and I certainly learned a lot from talking to you so I am really grateful for that. Thanks and I hope that things continue to go well for you at your new position.

MM: Thank you and I hope your blog will be really read by many people, mathematicians as well as non-mathematicians. I think it’s a very useful tool to give that idea that mathematics is really cool.

MP: Absolutely, well thanks so much, once again.

MM: You’re welcome.

MP: I am going to put this up on the blog very soon.

MM: OK great. Well, thanks very much and have a great evening.